Protesters arrested during demonstration against Burrillville fossil-fuel energy projects
By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Julian Rodriguez-Drix found out firsthand recently that the city’s waterfront is a high-security zone.
Two weeks ago, the activist and board member with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island (EJL) borrowed a friend’s car and drove the public road to the site of the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) project on the edge of the Providence River. An existing 147-foot-tall LNG storage tank adjoins the site and looms like a skyscraper near the road.
“I took a couple pictures with my phone and I left, thinking nothing of it,” he said during an Aug. 13 protest held at a public meeting for the project.
The next day, according to Rodriguez-Drix, his friend and owner of the car received calls from the Coast Guard and a State Police official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation Joint Terrorism Task Force, a program run by the Department of Homeland Security. His friend’s mother also received phone calls from police officials. Law enforcement even made an 11:30 p.m. visit to the friend’s landlord to ask about his tenant’s activities.
“They were harassing him and other people because National Grid and the State Police were so concerned about people taking pictures of this LNG storage tank that’s already there and considering it a potential terrorist attack,” Rodriguez-Drix said.
His point was that National Grid’s proposed natural-gas project and the surrounding industrial businesses subject the nearby, predominately low-income neighborhoods in South Providence to ongoing and persistent pollution.
In one-on-one interviews at the recent open house at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, National Grid officials repeatedly said the liquefaction facility would run on an electric engine and use a closed-loop system, which would eliminate harmful emissions. Much of the $100 million project would be built off the existing natural-gas pipeline and LNG storage tank, which has operated safely since it was built in 1974.
“If this facility is so safe, then why would this be such a concern,” Rodriguez-Drix said. “And if there is a risk for an attack, what else could be a risk? Human error? An earthquake like the one that hit Fields Point a couple weeks ago or bigger? What about a hurricane? We’ve got climate change, right? More hurricanes could be expected. This whole area is on the wrong side of the hurricane barrier.”
He also suggested lightening, or an accident at the nearby oil depot or chemical distributor, all raise the probability of fires, explosions and exposure to toxic emissions.
National Grid maintains that the project meets all safety requirements. The site is designed to withstand a 500-year flood event and is therefore well protected against sea-level rise, hurricanes and storm surges.
To Rodriguez-Drix and other 50 or so protesters, the project adds to the systemic, ongoing health and economic problems they called “environmental racism.” He explained it as the process of polluting one community while other neighborhoods receive the social and economic benefits.
“You don’t see this happening on the East Side’s waterfront areas, where rich white people get to enjoy waterfront access and boating and walking trails,” Rodriguez-Drix. You don’t see this ... in Pawtuxet Village, where there’s parks and yachts and waterfront restaurants. People in the affluent white communities get to use National Grid’s gas, too. And they use much more of it without having to deal with the utility terminations, and the port right next door to them. And they don’t have to deal with the impacts of private industry next to their homes and next to their schools.”
Steve Roberts, an EJL organizer, said most South Providence residents won’t qualify for the few highly skilled jobs the liquefaction project will offer. Instead, the facility will add to the list of unethical and unhealthy industrial operations that repress the community.
“We can’t keep polluting and telling people we want a cleaner future,” he said.
Daniel Chumm, a student at Central High School and a leader with the Providence Student Youth Movement, said he and four members in his family of eight suffer from asthma. His home near the Burger King on Thurbers Avenue is in one of the state’s asthma hot spots.
Jesus Holguin, an EJL youth leader, said the project should be stopped, to draw attention to the ongoing pollution and economic woes the city’s waterfront industries create.
“I feel like there is such a huge focus on what is being built instead of what has been built,” Holguin said.
David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said he would have been proud if any of the high-school-aged protesters had been his own child. But, “the unfortunate thing is I think they have been given a lot of misinformation.”
The new project, he said, wouldn’t add to any pollution or health risks in the community.
Local police were present throughout the 20-minute protest, which was orderly and passionate.
The proposal requires permits from the state Department or Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council. Based on public feedback, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will decide whether an environmental impact report or assessment is required.
In 2005, public opposition led FERC to deny an LNG shipping terminal on the same site. FERC turned down the project after public outcry over the risks attributed to LNG tankers in Narragansett Bay.
A public comment meeting is likely the next step, a FERC official told ecoRI News.
The gas for the LNG liquefaction project would be delivered through the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline. The natural gas comes from the shale-gas fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is shipped across southern New England to a terminal outside Boston.
Earlier on Aug. 13, University of Rhode Island professor Peter Nightingale and Curt Nordgaard, a pediatrician from Massachusetts, were arrested after locking themselves to the gate of the Algonquin compressor station in Burrillville. The site has sparked several protests in the past year, as the expansion of a compressor station moves forward. Also, a plan for a new natural-gas power plant at the site was announced last week.
Activists say the power plant and compressor station increase carbon emissions and pose health risks to the rural town. They say the projects also support the controversial natural gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
“The shale-gas projects of Spectra Energy and Invenergy in Burrillville and National Grid’s LNG plans for Fields Point result from a national energy plan based on bad science,” Nightingale said. “We will keep taking action until these projects are stopped.”